Center for Strategic Communication

The Mexican marines just took down an infamous capo for Mexico’s most brutal cartel. But they may have accidentally cleared the decks for an even more vicious one to take his place.

Ivan Velazquez Caballero, known by the alarming name “El Taliban” — a likely reference to the way cartels glorify lopping off the heads of their enemies — was captured Wednesday in the city of San Luis Potosi apparently without firing a shot, according to Reuters. But “El Taliban” was doing more than smuggling drugs and fighting the authorities. He was waging a civil war within the Zetas and against Miguel “Z-40″ Trevino Morales, a brutal assassin. Trevino recently seized control of the Zetas, and he’s known for “cooking” his enemies alive in burning oil drums.

That’s the risk in taking out drug lords, and it’s similar to the risk in taking out insurgent chieftains. Doing so risks elevating whoever’s angling to take their place. A successor may turn out to be more lethally competent than the last leader was. And that appears to be exactly what’s happening with the Zetas. The guy named after the Taliban may turn out to be the moderate one.

Some background: The Zetas are arguably Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel. Originally a hit squad for the Gulf Cartel (CDG) and comprised of former Mexican commandos, the Zetas split with their former patrons in 2010. Since then, they’ve waged a war for control of the CDG’s turf in the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros opposite the Texas border. Under the leadership of former kingpin Heriberto “Z-3″ Lazcano, the Zetas became a major cartel in their own right, expanding far beyond its core of former commandos to form a paramilitary force of thousands. The cartel now controls much of eastern Mexico from the U.S. border to Guatemala in the south, sparking a pandemic of killings and kidnappings.

Enter El Taliban. During this period, Velazquez rose to become the “plaza” boss — controlling a drug-trafficking hub — for the municipality of Cadereyta Jimenez, a key highway chokepoint between the Monterrey metropolis and the Gulf-controlled border towns. If drugs move from Monterrey to those towns, and then across the border into Texas, much of it moved at the control of El Taliban.

But then came another split, this time within the Zetas.

The rift is complicated, and it involves a series of shifting alliances between competing cartels and factions within those cartels. But sometime earlier this year, Trevino — the Zetas’ brutal second in command — reportedly seized control of the Zetas from his boss Lazcano. Factions formed around each leader, and an internal conflict erupted between. Velazquez remained a Lazcano loyalist. El Taliban left his stronghold outside Monterrey then moved south, where he reportedly attempted to seize control of the drug plazas in Mexico’s interior. A wave of violence resulted. Trevino retaliated in August, “dumping” 14 bodies — possibly loyalists to Velazquez — at a gas station in San Luis Potosi.

Meanwhile, Velazquez opened a second front: an alliance with his former enemies in other cartels against Trevino. “Narco-banners,” the giant posters that the cartels use as their primary tool to announce alliances, began spreading across Mexico accusing Trevino of betraying the Zetas. Others announced a pact between Velazquez, the Gulf Cartel and the Knights Templar — a smaller cult-like cartel that models itself on the medieval Christian military order. (You heard that right: the Mexican Taliban allied with the Mexican Knights Templar.)

Duplicated banners signed by Velazquez and referring to the alliance appeared in the cities of Puebla and Monterrey as recently as this Monday, and accused Trevino of stabbing other Zetas leaders in the back. The banners asked pointedly, ”Why do you think Commander Taliban returned to the Gulf Cartel?” On Sept. 18, a banner signed by Velazquez appeared in Puebla, calling on Trevino’s enemies to unite. In August, banners signed by the Knights Templar appeared in their home state of Michoacan, promising to aid “our brothers” against Trevino.

The alliance could have been provoked by Trevino’s notorious reputation. “Trevino is someone who wants to fight the fight,” Samuel Logan, the director of Latin America security analyst group Southern Pulse, told the Associated Press. Lazcano was more like The Wire’s gangster-turned-business man Stringer Bell, if less reluctant to use violence; Trevino is the thug kingpin Marlo Stanfield who rises after Bell’s shift disrupts his gang’s previously dominant business. Trevino, Logan added, wants to go out “with his guns blazing.”

Velazquez, of course, surrendered without a shot. His capture also follows the arrest of another top drug lord: Gulf Cartel boss Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias “El Coss,” which removes another obstacle for Trevino to expand control over Mexico’s criminal underworld.

Sure, Velazquez uses a frightening nom de guerre. But what Trevino lacks in nicknames he makes up for in brutality. El Taliban’s departure from the streets might make the Zetas even more dangerous.